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education lab

This column is part of the Education Lab series, where educators, students and experts share their views and experience about education. Follow us on Twitter at globe_education.

Canada is currently involved in a deep and prolonged obsession about jobs for young people. We have had unemployment spikes in the past, usually tied to North American and global recessions. In the past, there was always the sense that time – and effective government action – would bring things right. Now, that confidence is rapidly eroding.

The current wave of unemployment and underemployment, especially of young people, is connected to a complex set of forces: the weakness of the American economy (starting slowly to rebound), global competition, the decline of central Canadian manufacturing, and the residual effects of the 2008-2009 recession. These traumas have been offset in part by a resource and construction boom in Western Canada that has sustained growth, attracted tens of thousands of foreign and Eastern Canada workers, and helped keep the national economy afloat.

If these were the only factors to consider, it would be fairly easy for families, particularly those with high-school age children, to plan. Get a trade, consider moving out West (if only temporarily), and focus one's education and training on practical, career ready skills related to western development. But which practical skills will be in demand five to 10 years from now? What careers are on the horizon, enticing a 17-year-old heading off to college, polytechnic or university?

First, let's put aside the rhetoric about these fancy-pants new age jobs: genetic counsellor, futurist, vertical farmer, nanotechnician, waste data handler and the like. Some of these will emerge as full-fledged professions, but most will only create a handful of jobs. For communities reeling from the loss of 500 to 1000 jobs through a factory closure, or a sector quietly retooling from the elimination of 1000 jobs at the Bank of Montreal, the idea that a handful of people might get hired on 10 years from now as memory augmentation surgeons or classroom avatar manager is little solace.

Second, we must recognize at the outset that those with high-level specialized skills – whatever they are – and exceptional talent will do as well in the future as they do now and have done in the past. People who combine intelligence with a strong work ethic and a creative mind are always in demand.

Equally important, thirdly, is the fact that jobs are evaporating at a ferocious pace, a reality masked by the growth of the service sector and contingent (temporary) labour. New technologies have eliminated many production and industrial jobs; robotics and computerization have produced efficiency gains at the cost of jobs, keeping companies viable in the viciously competitive global marketplace but reducing rather than adding to employment. Most Canadians paid little attention when these changes led to downsizing in the manufacturing sector. Possibly they will pay much more attention now that technology is starting to erode professional jobs.

The current infatuation with credentials has been led by the demands of parents for college, polytechnic and university spaces for their teenage children, and governments' readiness to spend large sums of money preparing young people – for the economy of the 1980s and 1990s. But massive expansion in postsecondary enrollments has not met labour market needs, nor has it produced enough young graduates ready for the 21st century economy. The preferred employer among young adults is the Government of Canada, not exactly the prototype of the "new economy" employer.

Parents and young adults need practical solutions and real guidance, things that are in short supply within the Canadian secondary and postsecondary system. With this in mind, we offer four short pieces of advice:

1. Beware the advice of anyone who suggests that there are simple and guaranteed pathways to middle class prosperity and success. The way students swarm into popular fields ensures that one year's shortage of graduates quickly translates into a surplus of young adults in the field a few years later. If you doubt this, ask graduating lawyers or teachers.

2. If credentials are not the guaranteed key to success, then what is? We are fans of Paul Tough's three qualities of successful people: work ethic, grit and curiosity. These characteristics are in shorter support than most people think. But they are what employers want.

3. Plan – and keep planning. It is astonishing how little care and attention young Canadians devote to career planning. The education system tells them they are all truly special – a statistical improbability – and governments convey the misleading impression that state action will somehow produce the jobs that young people need.

4. Move fast and move smart. Opportunities come and go quickly, as regional economies and sectorial performance shifts around. Young people have to develop real skills – and they have to keep alert for job opportunities.

Career paranoia is going to be with us from now on. There are good reasons for being nervous, and the greatest of them is this: It's very unlikely that Canada's future will hold good jobs for every person now growing up, not even for every person graduating with a college, polytech, or university designation. The stakes are high, and the choices difficult. Will today's young adults be poorer than your parents? The choices they make and their personal qualities will decide.

Ken Coates and Bill Morrison are the authors of What to Consider When You Are Considering University, released by Dundurn in March 2014.

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